Happy Paddy's Week -- Don't Call It A Black-And-Tan

[ Posted Monday, March 16th, 2015 – 12:00 UTC ]

[Program Note: We're kicking off a week of Irish-themed columns for this week, as I will be away in Ireland (see previous Program Note posting for details), enjoying St. Patrick's Day in Dublin. This column ran a few years back, so I have to warn you that the Irish Times links may be behind a paywall now. But even without the links, enjoy the story, which I'm publishing first so everyone will know what to say at the pub tomorrow night!]


Originally published March 15, 2012

I realize I'm a wee bit early for a Saint Patrick's Day column, but tomorrow is our regularly-scheduled Friday Talking Points, and Saturday I will be hoisting a pint of Sir Arthur Guinness' fine product, so we'll just have to make do with today.

Being pressed for time, I thought I'd just re-run my explanation of what "Saint Patrick banishing the snakes from Ireland" actually means, as it is an entertaining story to tell down at your local pub this weekend, full of rich Irish history that will amaze your sozzled friends. If you can remember the story, at the time, of course.

But that was before I had read the story of Nike putting "its foot in it" (as the Irish Times summed it up) with a mis-branding faux pas for the ages. We'll get to that in a moment.

Before we do, I have a piece of advice for all American tourists who ever find themselves in Ireland. Be it on Paddy's Day, or be it any other day of the year, the advice I have to give will still be sound. Because you'll arrive in Ireland starry-eyed with the magic of the Emerald Isle, and will immediately want to explore the nearest quaint pub and drink deep of the... ahem... flavor of the local life, not to put to fine a point on it.

At this point, you may be tempted to ask the barman for what you believe will be a well-known local drink, and you may thus make the mistake of asking for a "black and tan." The reception of what you consider a harmless drink order for a pint glass half-filled with Harp and half-filled with Guinness Stout will not, however, be a merry twinkle of approval from the barman's eye for ordering a local delicacy. Instead, you will (hopefully) be forgiven for such a gross error of etiquette, and (once they hear some more of your American accent, again, hopefully) they will instruct you in the long and grim history of the Black and Tans -- with a helpful suggestion that if you ever want the same drink again in an Irish pub, that you ask for it as a "half and half" instead.

That's if you're lucky, mind you. If you're not so lucky, you will be met with a much more... shall we say, "colorful" response... from both the barman and any nearby patrons who happen to overhear such an offensive request. Loudly proclaiming "I'm an American! That's what we call it back home! I didn't realize..." may help, just as a humble suggestion.

This may be confusing, which is why I'm offering this advice beforehand. Back home in Peoria (or Wherevertown, U.S.A.) you may be accustomed to enjoying an evening in your local "Irish" pub, and this may be a favorite drink for you to order. But what you don't realize is that this is an American-Irish term. It's like the difference between Tex-Mex and real Mexican food, on a benign level. On a less benign level, however, it would be like walking into a bar in Harlem and asking the bartender for a drink you were used to calling a "K.K.K." This is about the magnitude of how offensive ordering a "black and tan" in an Irish pub truly is.

Which brings us to our marketing snafu (or, really, a marketing fubar, if truth be told). Nike decided that it would be a good week to release two new shoe styles. The first they called the "Guinness," and the second they called the "Black and Tan." Whoops. The company has since issued an apology and insists that the names were nothing more than "unofficial" anyway. "Good luck with that," was my initial response. Other American companies have made the same mistake in the past, after all.

The reason why the name "Black and Tans" is so monumentally wrong for a corporate promotion (and for you to order in a pub in Ireland) is the history behind the term. In 1920, England decided to send an army of thugs into Ireland to deal with the guerrilla war being waged by the Irish Republican Army (which is not exactly the same thing as what Americans call the "I.R.A." in modern times, but that's a whole 'nother story). This paramilitary group became known as the Black and Tans. From a British newspaper on the Nike story comes an excellent rundown of this history. Here's a short excerpt (I highly recommend reading the whole article):

The recruits, many hardened by trench warfare, were given only a few months' training before being despatched to Ireland, supposedly to act as policemen but in fact to provide military steel. In Ireland, they faced a very different type of war. The IRA waged guerrilla warfare, with hit-and-run tactics, attacks on isolated police barracks and deadly ambushes in territory which was unfamiliar to the Tans. All the security forces found this an extremely frustrating type of conflict but the Tans in particular quickly abandoned the normal rules and conduct of war.

They were in any case explicitly instructed to step outside the law, one police divisional commander instructing his men in a speech: "If a police barracks is burnt then the best house in the locality is to be commandeered, the occupants thrown into the gutter. Let them die there; the more the merrier."

He instructed them to shout "Hands up" at civilians, and to shoot anyone who did not immediately obey. He added: "Innocent persons may be shot, but that cannot be helped, and you are bound to get the right parties some time. The more you shoot, the better I will like you, and I assure you no policeman will get into trouble for shooting any man."

This is the number one reason you should not use this phrase to order a drink anywhere in Ireland. To say that "it brings up bad memories" doesn't even begin to describe it. Read that whole article, if you don't believe me.

Of course, there is a far better reason not to order such a drink. To be quite blunt, the Irish will not be impressed at your local savvy -- even if you ask for a "half and half." They will, instead, consider you some species of wimp -- for watering down perfectly good Guinness Stout. Especially since they don't even brew Harp in Ireland any more (it's now made in Canada, check the label).

It's best just to ask for a pint of Guinness, if truth be told. If you want to sound like a grizzled old culchie, you could say something like: "I think me physician would recommend a pint of the customary," or maybe: "A pint of Sir Arthur's finest" -- although I have to further warn that, with your American accent, you'll never pull it off. It's safest just to politely go with: "A pint of Guinness, thanks very much."

Beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig!
Happy Saint Patrick's Day!

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


5 Comments on “Happy Paddy's Week -- Don't Call It A Black-And-Tan”

  1. [1] 
    Michale wrote:

    It's funny how an identical word or phrase can mean different things to different people depending on their culture or experience..

    When you say "Black And Tan" around our house, we immediately think of rottweilers.. :D


  2. [2] 
    dsws wrote:

    And snakes can't fly. Meaning there simply was no way for them to migrate to the Emerald Isle.

    There are lots of kinds of snakes that are native to various islands. Some of their ancestors swam, presumably, but most got there by rafting. When a river floods (which happens rather often, them being rivers and all), large clumps of vegetation often come loose, right up to "floating islands" that include standing trees. There are normally various animals on such things, and when they drift ashore somewhere else, the island has a bunch of new inhabitants.

    In the case if Ireland, the prevailing winds are against it, and there's not an abundance of large rivers suitably placed for it to happen anyway, given that the nearest land-mass is also an island. Even if there were, it's not exactly prime snake habitat. Only three snake species are native to Britain.

  3. [3] 
    Michale wrote:

    And snakes can't fly.

    I beg to differ... :D



  4. [4] 
    nypoet22 wrote:


    ~Samuel L. Jackson

  5. [5] 
    Michale wrote:


    And snakes can't fly.

    I beg to differ... :D

    "That's not flying!! That's falling.... with style!"
    -Woody, TOY STORY



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